Many languages shorten words in everyday speech. In English, we shorten a lot of words.
One way we do this is with contractions: two words joined with a special mark called an “apostrophe.” The apostrophe shows the reader where letters have been removed. For example, the words “is” and “not” can be combined to form the contraction “isn’t.” There is a letter missing between the letters “n” and “t.”
Contractions are one of the most feared subjects for English learners. They usually do not enjoy writing or reading them. Many are unsure how to say them and often can't understand native English speakers when they use them.
This fear probably comes from questions about them. Learners are unsure of what the words mean, which letters were removed, how to spell them and where to put the apostrophe.
Some English learners are even unsure whether contractions are correct English. They hear them in films and songs and may think they are not grammatical.
In this Everyday Grammar program, we’ll try to answer those questions. (You may also remember an earlier program that shared some of the sounds of contractions.)
When and why use them?
We use contractions in speaking, informal writing and even some kinds of formal writing. They are, indeed, grammatical .
You might even see contractions in newspapers, such as The Washington Post, or on television. Yet we do not use contractions in very formal writing, such as in a college paper or a business letter.
Native speakers almost always speak with contractions unless they purposely choose not to in order to emphasize something . Compare these sentences:
I’m not tired.
I am not tired.
The first sentence seems to be a simple, factual statement. But if a native speaker uses the second one, they are likely emphasizing they are not tired. It makes a stronger statement.
Using contractions makes your English sound more natural, but English learners are not required to use them.
Getting to know contractions
But, since contractions are so widely used, it’s a good idea to know their mechanics. This will help reduce misunderstandings – and hopefully fear.
Number 1: Most contractions are some form of noun + verb.
The first word in a contraction is usually a pronoun and the second is usually an auxiliary verb. Contractions combine these parts of speech:
- pronoun + verb (as in “he’ll” meaning “he will” and “she’d” meaning “she would”)
- noun + verb (as in “The book’s on the table”)
- name + verb (as in “Anna’s going to a baseball game”)
- verb + not (as in “aren’t” meaning “are not” and “shouldn’t” meaning “should not”) and
- question word + verb (as in “Where’s the beef?” and “What’s that?)
Notice that most of these involve some form of noun + verb.
We can also make contractions with the words “this,” “that,” “here” and “there,” as in “This’ll only take a minute” and “There’s my phone!”
Number 2. Most verbs in contractions are auxiliary verbs.
You may recall from earlier programs that auxiliary verbs are helping verbs. They help to give meaning or purpose to main verbs.
In the sentence “She’s leaving today,” the word “is” acts as an auxiliary verb and is part of the present continuous verb tense. The main verb is “leaving.”
Auxiliary verbs also include modal verbs (sometimes called “modal auxiliaries”), such as “should,” “can,” “could,” “must,” “will” and “would.”
Number 3. The verbs “be” and “have” act as auxiliary verbs in some contractions. In others, they act as main verbs.
In a statement like “She’s a teacher,” the word “is” in “She’s” is a main verb. But, in “She’s leaving today,” the verb “is” is an auxiliary verb and part of a verb tense.
Number 4. Affirmative contractions are never used at the end of a sentence. An affirmative contraction is a contraction that confirms a piece of information. Let’s hear an example:
Are you in the library?
Yes, I am.
The correct way to answer is, “Yes, I am,” not “Yes, I’m.”
Number 5. We do end statements with negative contractions. Listen to an example of someone answering a yes or no question:
Have you been to the new café yet?
No, I haven’t.
Number 6. Contractions with the verb be + negative can be made in two ways. To better understand this, let’s hear examples:
They’re not at the meeting place.
In this sentence, the contraction is they + are.
They aren’t at the meeting place.
In this sentence, the contraction is are + not.
The first way is more common than the second.
Number 7. Do not make “have” into a contraction when it is the main verb.
As I said earlier, the verb “have” can be either an auxiliary verb or main verb in contractions. But when a sentence uses “have” as the main verb, we do not shorten it.
For example, Americans would not say, “I’ve a cat,” to mean “I have a cat.” The British, however, do use this kind of contraction, although it is not as common as them saying, “I’ve got a cat” (which is not correct in American English).
To use or not…?
If you’d like to communicate more fluently and better understand the writing and speech of native speakers, it’s a good idea to understand contractions. We hope this program has helped reduce your fears. But practicing is the best thing you can do.
And remember: Don’t be afraid to make mistakes!
I’m Alice Bryant.
Alice Bryant wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
emphasize - v. to give special attention to (something)
auxiliary - adj. available to provide help when it is needed
negative - adj. expressing denial or refusal
practice - v. to do something again and again in order to become better at it
Now you try it!
1 - Write five sentences about a recent time you did something fun or memorable. Try to use three or more contractions.
2 - Practice listening to and saying contractions. A good pronunciation video can be found here.
3 - Tell us about a shortened or combined word from your language. What does the word sound like? How is it spelled? What does it mean? Is it used in speaking and writing?
Contractions with Pronouns
(I, you, she, he, it, we, they)
’m = am (I’m)
’re = are (you’re, we’re, they’re)
’s = is and has (she’s, he’s, it’s)
’ve = have (I’ve, you’ve, we’ve, they’ve)
’ll = will (I’ll, you’ll, she’ll, he’ll, it’ll, we’ll, they’ll)
’d = had and would (I’d, you’d, she’d, he’d, it’d, we’d, they’d)
(auxiliary verb + not)
didn’t= did not